“Follow Us on Facebook and Twitter” by Eric Cline appears here in its entirety and is the first story in Criminal Element's inaugural e-collection, The Malfeasance Occasional's Girl Trouble issue (available September 24, 2013).
The woman who fired me has a lovely daughter. Her name is Amber.
Amber is sixteen. She has lots of friends, judging by her Facebook page. I’m one of them.
I might be the only 33-year-old male Friend she has. And she doesn’t even know it; she thinks I’m a teenage girl in Tacoma, Washington named Kirsten Marcus. If she knew who I really was, and that I actually live in Maryland, like her (in Laurel, only an hour’s drive from her and her mom’s home in Columbia), well, I’m afraid she would Unfriend me.
• • •
I didn’t start out to be a villain. Hell, who does? I was going to be a titan of industry. I listened to motivational speakers in my car.
I was excited to work for Gretchen Metz. I believed in her product. I believed in the Purse Pistol.
“A 100-pound woman with a gun need not fear a 300-pound man with a knife,” she said in the hiring interview. “But that’s only if he doesn’t grab the gun and shoot her with it.
“And what if she falls down one day while she’s got the gun in her purse? The hammer of a revolver could be jarred just enough to fire a bullet. And what if your child finds it and thinks it’s a toy? Tragedy would strike. My goal is to make a handgun that can be fired by only one person, scanning their fingerprints on the handle.”
“Create an entire new industry!” I said. “As different from a regular pistol as an iPhone is from an old rotary phone! Police departments could use it too.” Sure, I was acting peppy to get the job, but it really did sound like a good product.
She was divorced and had sole custody of Amber. The company’s office and workshop was in an industrial park in Laurel.
No, I didn’t start out to be a villain.
But I’m enjoying the role immensely.
• • •
Once, companies told people what was important. Marketers created the habit of mass consumption of cigarettes in the 20th century.
Now, people tell companies what is important; Facebook is the New Lung Cancer. Nobody in business knows what to do with social media, but they know their potential customers use it, so they must desperately follow.
Me, I’m smarter than that. I know exactly what to do with it.
I created “Kirsten Marcus” on Twitter and Facebook by stealing some girl’s photos off a Russian-language Facebook page. The real owner of that apple-cheeked blonde face would never stumble across my creations.
Amber was the weakness in the Metz family’s armor. She had, I discovered, pestered every kid she knew to follow her on Twitter and had, as a result, amassed 824 followers.
“Kirsten Marcus” offered to be the 825th if…
U FOLLOW ME & I’LL FOLLOW U, K? I’D LOVE 2 HAVE TWIT BUDDY ON OTHER SIDE OF USA!!!
Amber had already made that bargain with others and readily agreed.
From there, Amber’s Twitter follower became a Facebook Friend. And soon, Ms. Gretchen Metz got a friend request from her daughter’s Friend, which she accepted, probably without a second thought.
In law enforcement, they’re called “breeder documents.” One good forged document, say a birth certificate, gets you a social security card, which gets you a driver’s license, which gets you a credit card; one good lie breeds a whole new identity for you.
And that’s how a smart villain uses social media! It’s a breeder document on steroids.
• • •
Amber taught me so, so much.
Flickr photo of a 10-year-old Amber on the lap of a chubby man dressed in a Santa suit. Caption:
My uncle, Ron Kane, died a year after this pic was taken. He and my mom were super close growing up. Unk, we love U and miss U every day!!!!
Mother’s maiden name: Kane.
Facebook scan of an old Polaroid of Gretchen Metz (Gretchen Kane then, I guess) with Big Hair. Her sweatshirt said Cumberland High:
OMG! My mom in high school! Breakfast Club ha ha! At least good looks run in the family!
Her mother had posted a comment: “Very funny. I was very little when that movie came out!” Yeah, ha ha indeed. Hometown, probably Cumberland, Maryland, and definitely the place she went to high school.
Time for some Google: “kane ‘gretchen metz’ cumberland.” An obituary from five years ago:
Nora Kane, a lifelong resident of Cumberland, survived by daughter Gretchen Metz of Columbia and brothers Mark Mooney and Jay Mooney, both of the District of Columbia.
(Confirmed hometown, Cumberland. Confirmed maiden name, Kane. Mother’s maiden name, Mooney.)
Amber used her Facebook profile to comment on a news story: a fire in some old widow’s house. The lady had been sleeping; her cat had batted her face until she woke up, and they got out alive. Amber had written:
Teers in my eyess! Heart warming. I had a cat named Tiger because he had stripes and I NO he would have saved me. But I started getting asthma & we could never have a cat agan, but if we coud I would LUV 1!!!! Dont listen 2 the haters! Cats R Kool!!
Jesus, thanks for sharing, kid.
Yeah. Thanks for sharing. Childhood pet name: Tiger. It wouldn’t be mom’s childhood pet, but it sounded like the only pet name that would come to her mom’s mind.
• • •
I enjoyed working for Gretchen Metz. I only became a villain because she made me one.
I replaced that pathetic brochure she called a web site with an interactive but easy-to-maintain one. I started a blog that I ghost wrote for her. I got her a story in The Wall Street Journal.
I did my job well.
We had lunch together occasionally, but didn’t socialize too much beyond that. She was an engineer, and she had four others working for her, so she spent most of her time with them. She never talked about her ex-husband or her current love life. She went on and on about her daughter, though: Amber was on the honor roll, Amber was on the swim team, that kind of crap.
I would listen politely. I had no interest in her daughter of any kind. Awright? But Big Mama must have thought I did. Because Amber ultimately got me fired.
It happened when I was outside the building on a hot day in the summer. The industrial park was not what you’d call scenic (unless signless buildings with semi containers parked all over are your thing). Half the time I worked from my apartment, half the time I doubled as an office assistant (as I had agreed—it was a startup). But I was taking a breather, sipping a soda outdoors, when I saw a pair of boobs jiggling in a red bikini top. Bikini bottom too. And a body that flattered them both.
“Yowza yowza!” I said, in sincere appreciation of the female form.
Amber giggled. She was flattered. It was her beneath the sunglasses and a floppy hat.
I about choked on my Mountain Dew. She greeted me respectfully by my last name. There was a twinkle in her eye as she went in to see her mother.
I sweated out that afternoon at my desk, half-heartedly doing a media release. What would she say to her mother? What would her mother say to me? I half-expected to be shown the door that day. Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have resented it as much.
Slowly, as the days went on, I got the feeling Amber had said something to precious Mumsey. Because the boss would give me an occasional blank look, like there were things she wanted to say. And soon she was pestering me about my workload. At the same time, she was telling me to not do certain things! “We’re not ready for people to put in orders,” she would say. “We need to pull it back.” In other words, I was too successful at the publicity!
About three weeks after “yowza yowza,” I was canned.
Gretchen Metz really laid it on thick, trying to “handle” me: “You’ve done a great job. It’s my fault because I brought a PR person on too early. I can’t have you whipping up consumer interest before we have a product to sell.” She was looking so sad, you’d think I was firing her.
I tried, damn it. I tried to be upbeat and positive and helpful.
“Pre-sales!” I said. “Start selling now! You can cure cash flow issues. I can help you with that.”
“No.” Her mask of compassion dropped. Her face was now stone. “Money is not a problem. My angels have given me a good line of credit and they know how far away I am from market.”
See how she’d set me up? When I’d been hired, it had all been, “We’re going to sell the world’s safest gun, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.” But then after I dared to glance at a post-adolescent young adult who pranced around half-naked, it was all: “I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I, I, I…” And she had told her venture capital angels before she had told me, her right hand man!
• • •
The job market was tough. I thought I had a job with Castle Bastion Arms in Virginia; they called me for an interview on the strength of my time with Purse Pistol LLC.
But once they found out I had done “only PR” (only!) I could see the three of them on the panel lose all interest.
“Now, we would be willing to pay a head hunter fee,” said one. “If you could bring one of her engineers over to us. Someone who has had the experience of solving those problems.” He quickly held up both palms. “Without infringing on the patents she has already taken out, of course.”
Another of them said, mostly to himself: “Don’t know why she won’t let us license her patents. We’re the ones with the manufacturing experience.”
I thought of a certain publicity video she had made with me, and about some information she had let slip.
“Her crew is pretty tight,” I said. “Good luck poaching one of them. But what about prototypes? Schematics?”
I saw a sort of lust in their eyes. But they said the words they had to say:
“Obviously, we’re not asking for material you do not have any sort of title to…”
“But if there were items, say, discarded in the trash, which maybe you had taken as mementos, souvenirs…”
“Drafts of documents for which patents haven’t yet been filed…”
“We would be willing to take a look at such material, obviously on an informal basis…”
“And I do believe that there might be room in Public Relations for an extraordinary talent… “
“A two-year contract, and we could talk salary…”
They were slick. I guess I sort of affectionately blamed them, too, for bringing me over to the dark side.
I had a lot to think about on that drive up the Beltway back to Laurel.
That night, “Kirsten Marcus” was born on Twitter.
• • •
I had shot the footage for a planned promotional video that Gretchen scrapped when she decided to supposedly “pull back” on publicity. It was taken on the firing range.
We didn’t wear ear protection. She was dry-firing it for a demonstration.
“Will this look good, with just that little camcorder?” she said. She had the gun, I had the camera.
“It’s the YouTube age,” I said. “People expect shaky. They love grainy. They think it’s more authentic.”
She held the little thumb drive out. “Okay, this is called enrolling. Your fingerprints have to be encoded on this, using a special machine that will be available at licensed gun dealers.”
She pushed the drive all the way into the bottom of the revolver’s butt, next to the lithium battery. Glassy ovals raised up slightly from both sides of the handle. She pointed those out and said, “Unless your thumb or one of your fingers is touching one of these scanners, the cylinder is locked. You have to be gripping it to fire it. Your child cannot discharge it, nor can a burglar.”
Looking at that video after I returned from the interview at Castle Bastion, I wished I could reach through the screen and grab the device from her; she and her team had worked out several different technical challenges, and every one of them was embodied in that prototype.
“It looks pretty damn slick,” I heard myself saying on video. “Seems like you’ve worked out all the bugs. Why not go to manufacture now?”
She laughed, cupping the pistol with both hands as she looked down at it.
“Oh, we’ve worked out every bug except one. This is one of three hand-built prototypes, and each one of them cost about $5,000 each. That’s not retail price, that’s cost.”
“Ouch,” video-me said. “Isn’t a good conventional handgun six, eight hundred bucks?”
“Yeah. People will pay a premium for our unique safety features. But we’ve got to figure out how to sell for under two grand and still make a profit. Because right now, the only person who has one in their home is me.”
Video-me laughed. “So, took advantage of the perks of the office, huh? Took one of them home?”
“Yeah. It’s good to have a model when I’m working at home and one of my team calls to discuss an issue. But, and maybe this would be good for the promo video to talk about this, I do have a teenager at home. She has friends visit her. I usually have it locked in my safe, but God forbid I’m careless, and they find it. That’s what this product is about. It will reduce the risk of a personal tragedy if someone is horsing around.”
“Actually, on second thought, don’t put anything like that in. I don’t want to lose my privacy, or my daughter’s. So many tragedies.”
“Yeah,” I said in real life, and stopped the video.
Two prototypes in the office. The locks were redundant, and security cameras were all around. No way I was getting in there.
But some residence in Columbia? With some rinky-dink personal safe? Hell, I could do it.
As I followed the mother and daughter on Facebook and Twitter over the next several days, I imagined myself as the star of a Hollywood movie: one of those thrillers about a gentleman burglar. There I would be in my ski mask and black spandex suit, cutting through glass, hopping over laser beams, listening to tumblers with a stethoscope.
I didn’t even have to drive by to case the house; Google Streetview gave me images of the address (which I had gotten from online county records).
It was a nice but not opulent rancher with a privacy fence. It was on a residential street with neighbors on either side, but they were big lots, and everyone had landscaping—rolling hills, bushes—that gave them plenty of privacy.
That would give me plenty of privacy.
It was Amber who told me they would be going on vacation. First on Twitter:
Ho hum. Going on yearly NY trip this week. Dont like leaving MD when its still warm. Wanna hang wit my crew in OC!
The beaches of Ocean City, Maryland were still nice in September. If I could have gotten away to there, I certainly would have. Why go all the way up to New York…City? Somewhere else in the state?
I Googled the date range and found out that it was Rosh Hashanah. Did they go to New York every year to celebrate? The mother’s Facebook page was silent, but adults are getting savvy about not tipping off burglars. A day later, I noted that Amber’s tweet had been deleted. No surprise there; Mom followed her daughter on Twitter (I guess most parents do these days) and must have had a fit.
When I searched through mom’s online profile for a New York connection, the mystery just got deeper. Her married cousin lived in Buffalo, New York.
Every year, Mom hauled her daughter up to Buffalo in the early fall instead of spending it on the beach at Ocean City?
I didn’t know that much about New York state, but I was pretty sure it was a “First prize, a week in Buffalo, second prize, two weeks in Buffalo” situation.
They could only be going up there for religious reasons. What other reason could there be for pointlessly sacrificing pleasure?
So, I had the house to myself. Their house. My self.
• • •
They were gone.
That morning, at 2 a.m., I broke into Gretchen’s email for the first time. I didn’t want her online when I did my stuff.
There was a dry, electric taste in my mouth. I admit I was nervous. Cyberstalking the mother and daughter on Facebook and Twitter wasn’t even a misdemeanor; they’d put it all out there for the world. But this was real multiple-felony territory.
I pushed the troubling thought away; I imagined myself again as a gentleman jewel thief in a movie.
I was not powerless.
I was not hired and fired at whim by some bitch.
I was a villain.
I was the big antihero of the whole damn show.
• • •
Forgot password? YES.
To protect your privacy, please answer one of these security questions. (dropdown menu):
What is your mother’s maiden name? MOONEY.
Would you like your new password texted to your number on record? NO.
Create new password now? YES.
As an additional security precaution, please answer a second security question (second dropdown): What high school did you graduate from? CUMBERLAND.
Thanks, Gretchen! Please enter your new password below.
I was in. Thanks, Gretchen, indeed.
I figured she would discover she had the old, wrong password some time later today (long after I had come and gone from Castle Metz), but wouldn’t assign any importance to it; there are always temporary bugs in the internet, right?
I searched within her mail for “alarm system” and found a couple of old “renewal reminders” from Brexton Alarm Systems, which included the identifying account number; the lady didn’t delete anything.
Next, I visited the Brexton Alarm site, armed with that helpful account number.
Forgot your alarm code? Brexton takes your privacy very seriously. To prove your identity, please answer one of the following questions:
“Your pet’s name!” I roared so loud that I risked waking up people in adjoining apartments.
TIGER. There hadn’t been any since then because little Amber developed allergies.
Thank you. We will email your passcode to you.
It arrived almost instantaneously in her inbox: 061102.
• • •
I stood inside one of the neatest homes I have ever been in. With a working mom and a spoiled teenager, they had to have a maid taking care of this. Not enough money for a PR guy to grow your business, but plenty for maids, huh?
My second thought was more practical: Watch for the cleaning service.
I made a mental note to pass myself off as a relative. I had put on a shower cap and rubber gloves before I walked through the door. If I heard somebody coming in, I’d rip those things off and shove them in my pockets before they saw me. (The skeleton keys I’d used for the conventional lock were already back in my car. No way to explain a ring of those on your belt.) Probably illegals anyway; if I looked like I belonged there, they’d just smile and go about their business.
Smart, see? Thinking. I was an evil genius. I savored my own ability to improvise like that. The electric taste of fear in my mouth was gone, replaced by a satisfying buzz.
I looked around. Where would mama Gretchen’s home office be? I checked the various bedrooms.
I walked into one, realizing I was in the daughter’s bedroom. Pink bed spreads. Three different e-picture frames, scrolling through predictable shots of Amber mugging with all of her friends from high school.
I guess I should have felt some kind of forbidden thrill at being in a 16-year-old girl’s room, but I was surprised by a sudden sense of tiredness. Middle age was beckoning.
Where were the posters? I’d had Pearl Jam, the Spin Doctors, Stone Temple Pilots. Did kids not have posters anymore? Did they do everything onscreen? And I’d had disorganized stacks of CDs, even a few cassette tapes. She’d probably taken every bit of music she owned with her on a one inch square MP3 player. Did teenagers not have sloppy rooms anymore? What had the 21st century done to them?
I pulled open a drawer. I suppose a true villain in the creepy-home-invader horror movie vein would want to mentally violate the girl by looking through her panty drawer, I saw neatly folded panties and rolled socks; there was also a hairbrush, some curlers, and a backup inhaler in with the clothes, and I realized she’d probably folded and put everything away herself. All I could really think was, Gee, she’s a good kid.
An odd thought for a supervillain bent on industrial espionage.
I sighed and walked down the hallway.
Gretchen Metz’s bedroom was a little more cluttered. There was a large desk with paperwork ringed haphazardly around her computer’s printer; she was maybe 10 years older than me, so she still used paper. I smiled in warm recognition when I saw a CD case of a Lenny Kravitz album that I’d also had.
Then I remembered my business and poked around looking for that prototype.
No, this wasn’t where it would be. She had some of her work here as a side business to watching Jimmy Fallon or whoever while she waited to fall asleep. She wasn’t going to keep the prototype here in a shoebox, taking it out and twirling it on her index finger while she lay on the bed.
If this place had a basement, that would be her workshop. But it didn’t, which meant it was probably another bedroom….
Bingo. Next bedroom down had been stripped of carpet and overlaid with imitation parquet wood. Two long metal work tables, overhead fluorescent lights, precision hand tools put up on their pegboards just so. There was even videoconference equipment—professional, secured stuff, not a cheapee webcam.
A tall safe (it came up to my nose) stood next to the bench. It had to be in there.
Hah! Forget about spinning dials and listening to tumblers with stethoscopes. It had a raised keypad above the handle.
Oddly, I didn’t panic. I didn’t have a moment of doubt. I had mined so much personal data from Gretchen and her daughter that I felt somehow I could guess the combination. The daughter’s birthdate was on her own Facebook page. But first, I tried 061102, the alarm combination.
I opened the safe and saw the gun lying in a bed of black felt. There were also printed schematics, thumb drives, and a laptop. Clearly, all the proprietary data that had not yet been patented. Gretchen Metz had been careful to never put this stuff on the open internet; yet my being here was proof that her attention to security was… uneven. Heh, heh, heh. I could take it all to Castle Bastion Arms—
From down the hall, I heard the front door open.
“Gretchen! Amber! Where are you!” A man’s voice.
I grabbed the gun and shoved it deep into my pocket. The gloves and the hairnet followed. I closed the safe as quickly as I could without making a metallic slam. I’m a family friend, who are you? I thought. I’m a family friend who came over to—shit, I should have rehearsed this better! Who was out there in the living room? It didn’t sound like a maid service, although I suppose men could work as house cleaners. But it was someone who addressed them by their first names.
My car was parked out front under those sheltering trees, and no doubt there was another car next to it right now. I wasn’t sneaking out of here; I’d have to bluff my way past whoever was there.
Nearby neighbor come to check on them, maybe?
There was no broken glass, no shattered door listing awkwardly in its frame; this surely didn’t look like any damn burglary. I could make it. Step step step. The person was pacing around rapidly out there.
Pasting a grin on my face, I went down the hallway. “Hello, who’s there?” I said. “Are you the neighbors? I think Gretchen said somebody would be checking in—”
I stopped in the living room. The man glaring at me was in his 40s, with wide blue eyes. His leather jacket and blue jeans had seen better days. His shaggy brown moustache half-hid his gritted teeth.
“Who are you!” He strode rapidly toward me.
I tried to be calm for the both of us. “I’m a friend of the family—”
He grabbed my collar and slammed me against the wall. I felt one of my ribs crack.
“Where’s my wife and daughter!” He slammed me into the wall again.
I put up my hands to defend myself. He landed a haymaker to the side of my head that sent me to the floor.
Before I could say anything else, he started ranting: “Are you screwing her! Are you with my wife, you bastard! Keep away from her! Keep away from my daughter!”
He kicked me. I drew up my legs to protect my groin.
“She’s divorced!” I screamed. “I thought she was divorced!” It was a stupid thing to say, in context.
“We have a family! It’s our anniversary! And I come into our home and find some punk like you—”
He continued kicking and stomping me. A couple of realizations flashed at me:
Amber Metz had sat on her uncle’s lap when he was dressed as Santa Claus. They weren’t a Jewish family.
Today was their wedding anniversary. It was a mere coincidence that this was Rosh Hashanah.
Every year on their wedding anniversary, Mr. Whoever Metz (who was so loathed that there were no mentions or pictures of him on either Facebook account) must come by to pester her, or try to. I could smell the whiskey on him now, like a miasma. How many years running now had Gretchen Metz taken her daughter out of state so she wouldn’t be anywhere near this jealous, violent jerk?
I had given him a generous, unintended present when he came here today and found the front door unlocked and the alarm off.
“Tell me one thing you little bastard! Were you sleeping with her before June, 2002? Were you screwing her when she was legally mine?”
061102. A number she loved. The date of her divorce. Oh God, oh God.
I heard my lower right leg bone crack before I felt the pain.
I pulled the gun out of my pocket and pointed it at him.
I knew now why Gretchen Metz’s entrepreneurial thoughts had run toward keeping a safe, reliable gun at hand.
He gasped, but didn’t look any less enraged.
I pulled the trigger. But it did not give. It didn’t move a hair. My fingerprints were wrong. It wouldn’t unlock.
Metz turned away and grabbed a cast iron figurine of a horseback rider off of an end table. He came closer.
I lay on my back, bearing down on that trigger with both index fingers.
I realized two final things:
One, Gretchen Metz was a hell of an engineer.
And two, I had had no real idea of what being a villain was all about. None at all…
Copyright © 2013 Eric Cline
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Eric Cline was born in Independence, Missouri, a city saturated with memories of and monuments to President Harry S. Truman. It was in an Independence thrift store that Eric’s mom purchased him children’s science fiction books by “Paul French,” a.k.a. Isaac Asimov. Eric went on to devour all of the books in the Mid-Continent Public Library. Eric holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, and once considered teaching as a profession. He has waited tables at a total of three restaurants. He was at the last restaurant after he got his master’s degree, which gave him some indication of how well teaching would pay. He now works in an office and writes on evenings and weekends. After a fitful original attempt to write, Eric turned his attention to reading, work, and study, before returning to writing with a vengeance in 2007. He, his wife, and his three dogs live in Maryland.